The Ethics of Silence

With the Democratic National Convention behind us, the Republican National Convention ahead of us, and the coverage of political races all around us, I hear a journalistic variation of Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" playing in my head.



Sing along to my version:



Hello politics, my old friend
I've come to cover you again
Because a coverage loudly screaming
Left its stories while I was watching
And the journalism that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Outside the sound of silence
And in the naked camera eye I saw
Ten thousand journalists, maybe more
Journalists talking without ceasing
Journalists pontificating without reporting
Journalists presenting stories that they want to share
And all of them dared to disturb the sound of silence



My reworking of the lyrics may seem an odd way to examine ethics and political coverage. Even the idea of silent journalists sounds like an oxymoron. After all, regardless of the platform, we see ourselves as part of a mass medium. We channel voices into community -- and countrywide --conversations.



How can silence serve that mission?



I wondered that myself. And I continued pondering it because Sheila Colón, my wife, decided to use me as a proxy for the news media and vent her displeasure about the coverage she witnessed.



She kept asking me why the network news operations offered so little coverage of the convention. And, in a more frustrated tone, why the cable news networks that did provide coverage told too much and showed too little.



I initially attempted to offer a variety of possible explanations. First of all, ABC, CBS, and NBC no longer exist solely as news companies. Instead, they are subsidiaries within larger, commercial enterprises with interests beyond journalism. Or maybe they felt that the need for more complete coverage seemed less imperative since there was no news as to who the nominees would be.



Besides, I tried arguing, viewers could turn to the cable news channels, which offered more coverage. Finally, for those who simply wanted to watch and listen to a news version of cinema vérité, they can turn to C-SPAN.










And, as it turned out, C-SPAN became the place we turned to get a sense of things as they unfolded. Sheila valued C-SPAN because it provided unfiltered, uninterrupted access to the speeches and to those attending the convention.


And she's not alone in that desire. Other people we know said the same thing to her and to me. The day after Sheila expressed her views, I turned to Poynter Online's STUMP, where published comments by multimedia editor Larry Larsen and Institute president Karen Dunlap bemoaned what I refer to as "journalistic interruptus." Even politicians and media critics voiced their frustration in a recent USA Today piece.



So what can we learn from this?



That silence works. Not the silence that stills the public's voice. But the silence that strategically, and wisely, occurs when we, as journalists, get out of the way of the story.



While I've been focusing on the television coverage, I believe the public also wants journalists to mute their own voices more often when it comes to relaying the news on radio, in newspapers, and online. And then amplify and expand the voices of those participating in the political process from voters to campaign workers to candidates.



Don't misunderstand me. I value the analysis, interpretation, and opinion that journalists can offer on political events. I just think it may help to make it clearer to the public when, and where, coverage rather than commentary is taking place. And to focus more on the former and maybe slightly less on the latter.



While news consumers have many more choices to turn to for coverage, including political weblogs, they also yearn for opportunities to see (literally and through their reading) what's going on as completely as possible.



Some important questions to consider when it comes to the journalist's role in such political coverage: When does it make sense to get out of the way? And do viewers understand when we've shifted from news to commentary?



We need to think about how we're answering those questions so we can offer the public more transparency about what we're doing and why.



For those of us eager to tell others what to think (and I include myself in that category), we need to remind ourselves that people also want to come to their own conclusions. They need us to be their eyes and ears, not just another mouthpiece.

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    Aly Colón

    Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led the ethics group at Poynter.

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